The Decline of the Physical Desktop

The bleak future of the physical desktop as the primary platform for end-user workloads is foretold in the staid field of desktop-management tools.

The more I worked with the latest version of Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager, the more I felt I was walking through a soon-to-be-abandoned factory.

It's not that SCCM 2007 R3 is an orphaned project. Nor am I foolishly predicting the death of the desktop. However, it's clear that new user computing paradigms are being built even as SCCM is patching up the foundations of the old ones. The once-green fields of physical desktops-and the seemingly endless train of maintenance tools needed to keep these systems functioning-have a distinctly bleak and wind-blown feel today.

Even after more than a decade, provisioning, maintaining and ultimately decommissioning a physical desktop or laptop remains a tremendously time-consuming and costly process. Because of application decisions made before the turn of the century, nearly all Windows desktop systems run such that users have administrator access to the operating system, an almost laughable risk exposure in today's world.

While advances in user-access-control, antivirus and anti-malware products have patched over some of the more egregious problems of unbridled user rights, keeping desktop systems in good working order is still a labor of Sisyphus. (In Greek mythology, Sisyphus' punishment was to push a heavy boulder uphill, watch it roll back down and repeat the process over and over.)

It's almost a guarantee that a desktop PC goes out of spec quite early in its youth; the reasons range from the need to accommodate necessary line-of-business applications that came on the scene after the desktop's deployment, to the accidental or unauthorized changes that users make on their own. The notion of a PC reaching retirement without a configuration problem is unknown in our world.

Between the advances in virtualization and the increasing use of cloud-based resources, the very idea of a PC-centric workload is coming into question. Virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, is making real advances in the way the user operating system, application and data are delivered, stored and protected. For a great idea of the kind of security and simplicity I'm talking about, go to eWeek's recent Pano Logic review.

In a virtual desktop world, almost all the problems that SCCM 2007 R3 attempts to solve are squashed before they have a chance to take root. In an organization where the desktop OS and data are stored and managed from a central location, and refreshed from a gold, IT-approved and supported image at the beginning of each workday, the very real problems of remote patch, update, user control and malware are vastly reduced.

Even though VDI reduces friction in daily operations, there are still significant implementation challenges today. Data-center-storage costs are one challenge. The more complex and customized desktop is significantly more difficult to create and deliver in a virtual format when compared with servers. The cost savings from more efficient resource use that were easy to realize in server virtualization are correspondingly more difficult to achieve in VDI. That is until IT operation costs, remediation efforts and data loss are factored in.

Microsoft SCCM and the other well-established tools of the trade do a fine job of taking care of legacy PC systems. Today, there are plenty of IT employees who are familiar with how these products work and who uses them to contain support costs. And IT managers will likely need this type of mostly physical field-maintenance platform for many years. However, virtualization and cloud computing are clearly on the horizon. And this means that static desktop systems have far fewer years ahead of them than behind them.